By Daniel Trotta
TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - The Pineda family trudged northward for more than a month with a caravan of Central American migrants who are now stuck at the U.S. border. But they were on the run in Honduras much longer than that due to fears of political persecution.
According to the family's account, masked men in military uniforms came in November 2017 to their door in the town of Peña Blanca, brandishing handguns and giving them two options: leave or be killed. They chose to leave, taking refuge with friends and family for nearly a year, they said, before joining thousands of others in a 2,800-mile (4,500-km) journey to the United States in October.
The confrontation occurred on Nov. 26, 2017, the night of Honduras' presidential election. Active in the leftist opposition Libre Party, the Pinedas believe their tormentors were loyal to conservative President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
His security forces killed at least 16 people in major street protests that followed his disputed re-election and nobody has been criminally charged, according to a U.N. report.
"They told me that for getting people involved in political parties they were going to fill me with lead," said Secundina Pineda, 25, one of four sisters living with their 65-year-old father and a toddler inside a tent at a migrant camp in Tijuana, Mexico.
Their story points to the largely overlooked political violence in Honduras that, along with grinding poverty, has helped create a humanitarian crisis at the U.S. doorstep.
Reuters could not verify the Pinedas' story, which was largely narrated by Secundina. She is the most educated of her family, having studied business administration. A Honduran armed forces spokesman vehemently denied the account or any other political persecution.
But human rights observers in Honduras and immigration lawyers representing migrants from the caravan said they have heard similar stories of security forces entering homes and intimidating opposition political activists.
Military police have conducted arbitrary searches and seizures and broken up opposition demonstrations, the rights observers said, a contention denied by the military.
In a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, death squads have conducted 38 massacres of five or more people in 2018, said Berta Oliva, director of the human rights group Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). She contended that political cases are written off as common crime.
"The Honduran armed forces absolutely do not persecute anybody," said Captain Jose Domingo Mesa, a military spokesman.
"A lot of people who are trying to get asylum (in the United States) are looking for political justification, a lot of times blaming the armed forces," Mesa said. "We invite this family that says it has been persecuted to return to the country."
The president's office did not answer a Reuters request for comment.
U.S. immigration lawyer Maritza Agundez estimated 20 to 25 percent of her coalition's clients are Hondurans with credible political asylum cases. She is one of 16 staff attorneys for Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) who are handling dozens of cases from the migrant caravan. The Hondurans who report harassment from official security forces vow never to return home, she said.
"They are 100 percent sure that if they return back home that they will be killed," Agundez said.
CARAVAN STALLED IN TIJUANA
Thousands of Central American asylum seekers have been corralled into overcrowded camps for the past month in the northern Mexican city of Tijuana after walking highways and hitching rides since October. They face long wait times to have asylum claims heard, and some frustrated migrants are considering trying to cross the U.S. border illegally, staying in Mexico or agreeing to be sent home voluntarily.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has made it harder for migrants to get asylum, eliminating protection for people fleeing gangs or domestic violence and attempting to deny asylum to people who cross the border illegally.
Even before that, less than 14 percent of Hondurans were winning their asylum cases in fiscal year 2018.
The United States is also deporting about 22,000 Hondurans per year back into one of the poorest counties in the Americas.
Soledad Pazo, representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras, said her mission is monitoring all manner of accusations including kidnapping and disappearances, but Honduran judicial institutions are largely incapable of a proper investigation, Pazo said.
"There is a high level of impunity here," Pazo said. "Many say, 'I don't have confidence in the police when those who I am reporting come from the state.'"
Honduras has long suffered political instability, and the situation has deteriorated since a 2009 coup when the army deposed President Manuel Zelaya, now of the Libre Party that was formed in 2011, for taking measures that could have led to running for re-election.
Polarization grew more acute in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of presidential re-election despite it still being banned by the constitution, allowing Hernandez to seek the re-election that had been denied Zelaya.
The election in 2017 was marked by irregularities, and when an early lead for Libre candidate Salvador Nasralla disappeared during the days-long vote count, street protests erupted.
A U.N. human rights report found 23 people were killed in post-election violence, at least 16 of them shot to death by security forces.
Oliva of COFADEH said human rights have continued to deteriorate with the military police and armed forces involved in the majority of the violations.
"From 2017 until now, Honduras has experienced a breakdown like never before on issues of human rights issues, democracy, on freedom of expression, on issues of truth. This is fundamentally what has made most people decide to migrate like a flock of birds," Oliva said.
The Pinedas heard on television about the caravan, which the Hernandez government alleges was instigated by a Libre politician. After a family debate, the Pinedas decided to leave, joining the 300,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who abandon their countries each year, according to a U.N. estimate.
Secundina Pineda said she wants to study marketing and learn English, perhaps in Miami where she has a friend. Older sister Leida, 33, said she would take any kind of job, even scrubbing toilets. Jose Melvin Pineda, the patriarch, wants to keep working in construction, even though he is 65 years old.
All of them are terrified of returning to Honduras."If we're deported," Secundina said, "we'll be eaten alive."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Cynthia Osterman)